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Surviving Canada’s overdose crisis under the shadow of COVID-19

Politicians have shown they have the means to act swiftly on harm reduction measures, why now and not earlier?

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Matthew Bonn is a harm reduction advocate and consultant, a member of the Halifax Area Network of Drug Using People (HANDUP), Lead Peer with Peers Assisting & Lending Support (PALS), an outreach worker with Mainline Needle Exchange and relief staff at Out of the Cold Emergency Shelter.  He is also a  national board member with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) and the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), as well as of many of the creators of the HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society which has implemented Atlantic Canada's first Overdose Prevention Site. - THE COAST
  • THE COAST
  • Matthew Bonn is a harm reduction advocate and consultant, a member of the Halifax Area Network of Drug Using People (HANDUP), Lead Peer with Peers Assisting & Lending Support (PALS), an outreach worker with Mainline Needle Exchange and relief staff at Out of the Cold Emergency Shelter. He is also a national board member with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) and the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), as well as of many of the creators of the HaliFIX Overdose Prevention Society which has implemented Atlantic Canada's first Overdose Prevention Site.

In the midst of two public health outbreaks, we seem to be forgetting about the overdose crisis, which has taken over 14,000 of the most marginalized and vulnerable lives in Canada.

Last week, prime minister Justin Trudeau announced the first $1 billion for the COVID-19 response—which has eight deaths in Canada to date—while right next door a public education symposium on substances was taking place—talking about the on-going systematic overdose crisis that takes 11 Canadian lives each day.

Not to take away from the efforts towards the latest health emergency but we on the front lines of the overdose crisis have been responding, losing friends and family members way before COVID-19 was an evening headline. Politicians have shown that talk is cheap. We have seen what they have done so quickly, from compiling resources together, scrambling to take care of people experiencing flu-like symptoms, all while we have current drug users reversing overdoses in every overdose prevention site or supervised consumption site in Canada, not knowing if their funding will be extended.

Everyone could have been better prepared for this by practising harm reduction measures: Wash your hands, wear a condom, if you are sniffing cocaine use your own colour coordinated straw and make sure your opinion is based on facts and not fiction.

But the alarming increase in rates of COVID-19 is worrisome, with the "latest global death rate for the novel coronavirus at 3.4 percent—higher than earlier figures of about two percent." The coronavirus outbreak has killed more than 7,500 people and infected nearly 184,000 as of Wednesday Mar 18.

These numbers seem to have swept the overdose crisis under the rug even though the CDC reports that 70,237 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2017. Opioids—mainly synthetic opioids (other than methadone)—are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths.

This broadens a larger question, what are we doing about the toxic drug supply that is flooding our streets, pressing fake Xanax and Dilaudid pills with Fentanyl? People who use drugs have the right to a safe supply, everyone uses some sort of substance—whether it's alcohol, caffeine, cocaine or fentanyl. Some are criminalized and some are not.

We have amazing harm reduction heroes pioneering new technology to safely and securely hold and dispense narcotics like the local Dartmouth-based Dispension Industries. Their machine verifies participants with a contactless biometric scanner and has changed the lives of the few who have been able to take part in the pilot project "My Safe." This makes you wonder...should everyone be going to a secure automated kiosk for their weekly medications? It would certainly reduce the stress on pharmacists during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Local Harm Reduction organizations are doing their best to balance the risks and continuing to provide supports for substance users during this pandemic. If your uncertain if something is open call ahead, talk to your doctor about medication, make sure you have Naloxone and if you have to use alone you can call the Overdose Prevention Line at 1-888-853-8542. If you overdose they'll call 911.

Where is our plan in place to provide a proactive measure before we reach death tolls of over 100 a year in Nova Scotia due to this overdose crisis while trying to combat new threats as they make their way through the lives of our most at-risk vulnerable people?


Harm reduction tips for people who use drugs during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Wash your hands before and after using each time.

Prepare your own drugs.

Minimize the need to share supplies (this is already a must but no one should be sharing pipes, bongs, vapes, joints, cigarettes, straws, et cetera.)

Minimize as much contact as possible.

Plan and prepare for an overdose (if using alone please test your drug for Fentanyl, maybe call a friend and put them on speakerphone?)

Stock up on your drug of choice, ask doctors for extra lengths of medications and have Naloxone on hand. Health Canada announced this week that pharmacists can renew prescriptions, transfer them to other pharmacists, and refill them over the phone to keep waits down in doctors offices.

Be prepared for involuntary withdrawal. Hopefully, this one isn't necessary but it's good to have a backup plan, with all the food, drinks and medication to go through it.

Come back here or check with NS public health for the latest reliable updates. In the meantime, wash your hands, cover your cough, wipe commonly used surfaces and stay home if you feel sick.

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